Consent, with regards to sex, is “when someone agrees, gives permission, or says “yes” to sexual activity with another person(s).” With this definition in mind, I can’t help but think, does the average Liberian know what consenting to any sexual activity means? I remember as a kid in Liberia, I’d always hear the constant refrain, ‘we wrestled until she let me eat my lay thing.” If this mundane phrase is translated to fit the legal definitions of consent and rape, it grievously translates to “I fought her until she allowed me to have sex with her.”
But being a naive kid, I did not pay any attention to the magnitude of said phrase. Looking back now, and given how suppressed the conversation around the possibility of Liberia having a rape culture is, many boys frequently and glaringly mentioned fighting girls in an attempt to describe the successful coercion of girls into having sex. As it is today, and as a society that is still yet to talk about the entirety of rape culture, it would be shocking if that sad refrain has lost its strongholds. Regrettably most young people wouldn’t understand that anyone who delightedly attested to forcing another person into performing sexual acts was a rapist; and on the contrary, a rapist is not a boogeyman in the closet. Research shows that in 8 out of 10 rape cases, the victims knew the person who sexually assaulted them.
Rape means, “to force someone to have sex when they are unwilling, using violence or any threatening behavior.”
During the early days of my active sex life as a young naive girl in Liberia, I always thought that if I were to decline any sexual advances from a male, yet he proceeded to violently or subtly pester me into having sex, that would mean he loved, desired me or even overvalued me. In reality, though, I would have been in a very vulnerable position, as many girls have, and the guy would coerce me, with words or force, until I could not resist anymore; I would consequently become weak and succumb to sex. Now the guy would leave and boast of having sexual intercourse that I never consented to in the first place. But, as a naive teenager, how could I have known that I needed to give consent? How would I be able to realize that I am being violated if I have never been exposed to the meaning of consent? I ask these questions keeping in mind the culture we live in, where it is fervently a taboo to talk about sex; if sex education is frowned upon, would it not be very ambitious for one to have even the slightest idea what consent is?
Let me tie all of this to the current scenario surrounding Liberian artists Sweetz Myers and DenG. About a week or so ago, Sweetz accused DenG of attempted rape, but DenG has since denied the allegations. However, according to Sweetz, she never consented to any of DenG’s alleged sexual advances made toward her. The keyword Sweetz used in her explanation of said event was ‘consent.” Unlike many other Liberians who are yet to receive proper sex education, Sweetz knew and understood the meaning of consent. In her recent testimony about the event, she sobbed, “I said no. I said DenG leave me alone, but he said, ‘wait here meh’ and continued to fight me.” If this allegation from Sweetz is true, is DenG akin to the Liberian men I knew in my youth? Does he still cling unto our childhood refrain? Is the phrase, “we wrestled until she let me eat my lay thing,” embedded in DenG’s mind? Does DenG know what consent is? Does consent to DenG mean fighting until the victim surrenders?
I ask those questions as a result of how sexual assault is handled in the Liberian society. Recently, we have seen a surge in conversations surrounding the possibility of Liberia having a rape culture. But many are still in denial of this possibility, and I have noticed that this denial is often a result of ignorance around the term “rape culture.”
Rape culture is the term used to “describe the normalization of sexual assault in a society- a culture in which rape and other sexual violence (usually against women and gender diverse peoples) are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media condone, normalize, excuse, or encourage sexualized violence.”
Three keywords from the definition of a rape culture firmly stand out as they relate to the handling of rape cases in Liberia- normalization, excuse, and encouragement. These three keywords also tie us back to the Sweetz and DenG situation.
Following Sweetz’ recounts of said event, a friend of mine had a conversation with a guy that exemplifies the ‘excuse’ aspect of rape culture. The guy said, ‘DenG must have thought Sweetz was playing hard to get.” Other sentiments also include, as can be seen in the screenshots attached, ‘Sweetz gave him the impression, it was not even rape.’ These statements show that as a society, we are still unaware of the meaning and magnitude of DenG’s alleged actions. We don’t understand that using force to coerce a girl into bed without her permission, whether or not you succeed, is, in fact, very wrong and a crime.
These statements also tie into the normalization aspect of the rape culture, where using force to solicit sex is permissible- like the comments above verify, in Liberia, we call it ‘playing hard to get.’ We have normalized ‘refusal’ as “playing hard to get,” which inevitably denies the victim the ability to ‘consent’ to any sexual acts, because when the victim says ‘no,’ that will translate as them ‘playing hard to get’ and then the assailant will proceed to violate the victim- which research shows are women 90% of the time.
But in reality, NO means NO. This is a message we must preach to our girls and boys, and we must disabuse them of the impotent notion that “boys will be boys.” Using force to solicit sex does not, in any way, make you more of a man- it instead makes you a rapist.
During the Liberian civil conflicts, rape was used as a weapon of war against women. Following Ellen’s presidency, in 2005, the Transitional Legislative Assembly passed an act to amend the rape law to include a non-bailable provision as a way to deter future rape crimes. The public was optimistic about the new rape law which attempted to curtail the pervasiveness of rape crimes in Liberia.
Sadly, a firm rape law, even under the leadership of a female president, could not adequately protect females and today, impunity for rape in Liberia is still at its peak, consequently making women and girls just as vulnerable to sexual violence.
According to UN Women “in the first quarter of 2018 alone, a total of 462 cases of various forms of sexual gender-based violence were reported from across Liberia, with the majority of survivors being children.” But the disturbing lack of systematic and institutional measures is not the only problem; it is how we, as a society, treat survivors of sexual assault after they have surmounted all odds to speak up and put a name to their assailant’s face.
By refusing to believe women when they come out, as seen in the Sweetz and DenG situation, we encourage sexual assault. More so, by shaming Sweetz for her bravery to speak up, we cultivate this rape culture in which we legitimize rape crimes. With the rising #METoo movement in Liberia, civil organizations and activist groups are working hard to empower victims of sexual violence to speak up. But when they do, the norms that surround the trivialization of SGBV issues counteract every effort. Society proceeds to slut-shame the victim, questioning the victim’s timeline to speak up and most of all, like the Sweetz-DenG situation, referring to it as a ‘witch hunt.’
With all of this, and as we recently concluded the #16DaysofActivism, in an attempt to tackle the abuse of women and girls, the dialogue about Liberia having a rape culture needs to be expedited. People need to understand the severity of the vulnerability of women and girls in Liberia. We obviously cannot go back to our childhood and uproot the harmful practices and our approaches to sex, which are steadily detrimental to women and girls in Liberia, but we can begin to talk about what it means to have a rape culture. What it means to use unwanted violence during sexual intercourse. What it means as a society to normalize sexual harassment. What it means for boys to insolently toss, grab and pull every girl who walks down the street. Lastly, we should strive to educate each and every Liberian on the meaning of consent. Like my friend said to the guy who blamed Sweetz for DenG’s alleged actions, “the first step to solving a problem is diagnosing or finding out the root of that problem. We need to realize that ‘we wrestled until she let me eat my lay thing’ is, in fact, a dangerous concept and that mutual consent should be the actual foreplay of any and all sexual interactions.” We can do better. We must do better. It is time. TIME IS UP!
Authored by Suma Massaley
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